Turner Prize

By Richard Barber

Born Anna Mae Bullock in two-bit nutbush, Tennessee in 1939, Tina Turner, as she became, ultimately blossomed into the highest-grossing female concert performer in history after recording private Dancer in london in the early 80s. To do so as a washed-up black soul singer in your 40s (the music industry back then was horribly white), and having fled an abusive marriage to husband Ike, who tried to prevent her from singing solo all the songs she had performed with him, was a remarkable achievement.

But, watching this fabulous evocation of her seesaw life, perhaps one of the clues to her global fame – that astonishing voice apart – was her rise and fall and rise again. like God, we all like a trier. Under Phyllida Lloyd’s intelligent, propulsive direction, and with the canny Ms turner’s careful eye on proceedings as the production developed, Tina’s riveting story (from Katori hall’s spot-on book) is allowed to breathe and grow as it unfolds. Too many so-called jukebox musicals slot the spoken words in around a procession of hits. Yes, there are 23 songs here in a packed evening, but they emerge organically from the story, either because we’ve reached the relevant point in tina’s career, or the action naturally triggers a particular number.

There’s not a weak link in a strong cast, although poor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith has his work cut out to make ike (boo, hiss) something more than a pantomime villain. A drug-taking womaniser, shouty with his fists, ike is easy to hate, although it’s a measure of this production that we come to understand that the culture from which he sprang partly explains his bombast while never condoning his behaviour.

In the end, though, the success of the venture rests on the slight shoulders of American-born Adrienne Warren. And she is, quite simply, sensational. With a voice that could strip paint, she seems to grow before your very eyes throughout her metamorphosis from naïve chrysalis singing gospel songs in her local church to the defiant, brightly coloured butterfly who filled stadiums around the world. And her acting matches her singing every step of the way.

There’s a terrific scene when maverick producer phil spector (tom Godwin) coaxes a performance from her of river Deep, Mountain high that could have been the real tina herself up there on stage. And the packed auditorium needed no encouragement to leap to their feet when Ms Warren ripped through proud Mary, We Don’t need Another Hero and What’s Love Got to Do With It. then there’s the spine-tingling finale, simply the Best. You said it!

Until 20 October at the Aldwych Theatre, London WC2: 0845-200 7981, www.nederlander.co.uk

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